MANILA - The Philippines has seen an "alarming" increase in HIV cases in the past year, especially among overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and men who have sex with men (MSM), according to health rights groups.
"Last May, the country had 85 reported cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the highest ever in the country. That's like 3 people a day, more cases than the A (H1N1) virus," said Danton Remoto, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Communications officer, at the country's 1st National Conference on MSM, transgender, and HIV last July 22.
There have been 3,911 HIV cases since 1984, according to Department of Health (DOH) data as of May 2009.
All HIV cases were transmitted through sexual contact, with 36% of cases transmitted through homosexual contact and 89% of cases caused by unprotected sex.
Other "vulnerable groups" are OFWs (making up 22% of total cases last May), out-of-school youth, street children who are sometimes forced into prostitution, and MSM communities (which cross-cultural studies said comprise 10% of the Philippine population).
Although the total HIV cases only consist of less than 1% of the Philippine population - making it a low-prevalence country - Dr. Jessie Fanton of the Philippine National AIDS Council said the numbers are still alarming.
"We will always be low-prevalence because of the high population growth. But if you count warm bodies, it really shows an increase in HIV and AIDS cases," he said.
|What is HIV?
|HIV is a virus that damages the immune system. It is transmitted from person to person through the exchange of or exposure to infected bodily fluids like semen, saliva, blood, vaginal secretions, or breast milk. Not all cases are transmitted through sexual contact. HIV can also be passed on from mother to child, or through sharing needles used for drug use.
|What is AIDS?
|AIDS is a collection of illnesses that occur even without HIV infections. However, persons who have AIDS-defining illnesses but do not have HIV are not classified as AIDS patients. AIDS-defining illnesses include tuberculosis, cervical cancer, herpes simplex, and lymphoma, among others.
HIV patients are also getting younger and younger, with more HIV cases coming from the 20 to 24 age group (29% of total cases this year).
"We have patients as young as 15 to 17. They cannot be said to be uneducated too. So this is alarming," said Dudz Razon (not his real name), an official from Pinoy Plus Association, a community of persons living with HIV or AIDS (PLWHA).
Fanton, citing a 2007 Integrated HIV Psychological study, said there have been several risk factors that contributed to the rapid spread of HIV in the country.
These include the rise in Internet-usage, which makes it easier to find sexual partners online; the prevalence of drugs and alcohol among MSMs in the past 3 years; and the popularity of anal sex without condoms.
"This is why this is an individual and behavioral issue that needs to be tracked and addressed," Fanton said.
The 3-day National Conference on MSM, Transgender, and HIV is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and aims to combat the rise in HIV cases by linking and training leaders from the MSM and transgender communities, as well as non-government organizations.
More than 50 representatives from gay and rights groups nationwide attended the conference. The project is part of the UNDP's 3-year HIV Programme, in cooperation with TLF Share and the Health Action and Information Network (HAIN).
Razon, a 40-year-old gay man who has been battling HIV since 1999, said that people like him have to contend with two problems - discrimination for being gay, and discrimination for being a PLWHA.
"We call it a double whammy. Kung baga, MSM ka na, positibo ka pa. Sometimes it's easier to disclose that you're HIV positive than to disclose that you are gay," he said.
"Because on our part, hindi madaling aminin na bading ka at nakuha mo ang HIV through same-sex [intercourse]. Because hindi masyadong pinag-uusapan ang homosexuality sa Philippine culture. There's a stigma," he explained.
Razon, who engaged in gay sex only once in his life, said he has been open to his family about his sickness, but is reluctant to open up about his being gay for fear that it would ruin his "good boy" image or that he would face prejudice or violence.
Razon said he has also experienced insensitivity from health practitioners themselves, who "react differently when they know a person has HIV." "Suddenly they wear masks around you and practice universal hygienic measures. So nakakahiya mag-open up sa kanila," he said.
The Pinoy Plus Association's peer-to-peer counseling has helped newly diagnosed HIV patients open up about their sickness. The Association, based in Manila, has over 100 active members.
UNDP Country Director Renaud Mayer said there have been cases of violence against gays, lesbians, or transgenders all over Southeast Asia. There are many countries that criminalize homosexuality.
Remoto said discrimination partly allows the sickness to continue, and promotes low self-esteem among persons living with HIV or AIDS.
"There are wrong notions about HIV. People think that if you're infected it's because pokpok (whore) ka, or mahilig ka kasi sa sex, so kasalanan mo iyan. We're trying to erase that notion," he said.
Razon shared that many gay PLWHAs are afraid to have sex lest they infect their partner. He said they opt for "careful sexual encounters" like mutual masturbation, watching erotic movies together, or wearing condoms.
"However, this is not purely a gay issue. It is an issue affecting everyone - women, children, and men. It's more of a question of how the public in general lack access to information and education on HIV and AIDS prevention," Remoto said.
Poverty also worsens the problem since poor people do not have access to education or healthcare. "If a poor person would choose between a P15 can of sardines or a P15 pack of condoms, which would he or she choose?" he said.
State should invest in AIDS/HIV treatment
Razon said the government should set up clear mechanisms on how to sustain access to HIV treatment without depending heavily on international funding like the Global Fund Project.
He added that the government had supposedly added an "AIDS benefit package" to its health insurance program, but Razon said PLWHAs have yet to feel the benefits.
Global Fund, a private organization, currently provides HIV/ AIDS treatment to select patients through the help of the DOH and Pinoy Plus Association.
"We feel like the government does not feel the magnitude of the HIV problem. It's time for the government to invest in AIDS [treatment] because trends are changing from low and slow to hidden and growing," Razon said.
Fanton said the government has been assured of international funding for HIV treatment until 2010.
Antiretroviral drugs keep HIV at bay and stops the weakening of the immune system. Once a person takes HIV or AIDS treatment, he or she must do so every day for the rest of his or her life. Otherwise, they could develop resistance to the drug, allowing opportunistic infections to attack their immune systems, that could be fatal.
DOH National Epidemiology Center statistics reveal that from 1984 to 2009, there have been 318 reported deaths due to AIDS.
No follow-through on laws
The present administration failed to address the HIV problem head-on Remoto said, because it was heavily influenced by the Church's stand against contraception and family planning.
"In the 1990s, we had a strong HIV/AIDS program under [former Health secretary] Dr. [Juan] Flavier. But it was discontinued. Health centers no longer give out free condoms, and they no longer give out information about HIV or AIDS. So there are no programs, no plans to give information and education," Remoto said.
Though the Philippines was ahead of its Southeast Asian neighbors when introducing laws like the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 (Republic Act 8504) or the Reproductive Health Bill, it lagged in terms of passing or implementing these laws.
Akbayan Rep. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros-Baraquel, meanwhile, believes the Anti-Discrimination Bill pending in Congress can help curb the spread of HIV.
"[This can help] in terms of accessing the public healthcare system, the bill penalizes any discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders," she said.
Hontiveros-Baraquel also said there should be government reforms on reproductive health policies, especially in terms of promoting condom use as a socially acceptable practice.
"We think if the government becomes pro-condom, pro-life na iyon dahil makaliligtas sa buhay at kalusugan. Sana maglaan din ng resources din domestically at hindi pagkakaitan ng sapat funds ang local government units para sa HIV or AIDS prevention. They can also change their worldview on sex at hindi na masyado mag-ascribe sa views ng Church," she said.
Further, many NGO leaders and MSMs who attended the HIV Conference said they did not see any strong presidential candidate for the 2010 polls who had a clear platform on health and addressing the HIV/ AIDS problem. Report and photos by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.